Bales part of grazing plan

While January means feeding bales on many cattle operations, John Lee Njos, who ranches with his family in the Badlands near Rhame, N.D., has worked to perfect having his cows and weaned heifer calves bale-graze through the winter instead.

Bales part of grazing plan

While January means feeding bales on many cattle operations, John Lee Njos, who ranches with his family in the Badlands near Rhame, N.D., has worked to perfect having his cows and weaned heifer calves bale-graze through the winter instead.

With this strategy, Njos says, a tractor rarely needs to be started in the winter months. And, he notes that in just a few years, bale grazing has already increased the health and productivity of their fragile Badlands soils.

He says, “When you figure what you pay for fertilizer versus hay, bale grazing has a pretty high value.”

For the Njos family, the bale-grazing process starts in the fall when bales — most of which are purchased — are strategically placed on introduced pastures. Bales are placed about 25 to 30 feet apart. The Njoses aim to put out enough bales to feed the herd from January through March.

Njos notes, “We don’t put out all of our bales for grazing, because we don’t want any leftovers out there.”

They do keep a reserve of bales on hand, so if they are running short, in March and April they can place bales where they want the cattle to graze. Reserve bales are stored in rows facing north and south.

Njos says this is done because the snow usually blows that way, and it prevents the rows from being drifted over. About April 15, they begin calving.

Electric fencing to separate the bales is also set up in the fall. They aim to have the herd bale-graze an area for about three to five days — with access to about 17 to 20 bales for 240 head — before moving on to fresh bales.

Njos says a good rule of thumb is to offer about three bales for 200 head per day; thus, for five days that would be about 15 bales. If weather is extremely cold, he may add a few bales or roll out a bale of alfalfa to provide extra protein.

Njos prefers to use a light-weight aviation cable that can be electrified, because he’s learned that frost takes down the charge in polywire. Njos originally got his cable as “recycled” product from Canada, but says trade stipulations have made it difficult to get now.

Another tip: Njos believes the forage quality of the bale makes a difference in utilization. He has found if the energy in bales is 60% total digestible nutrients, cows will eat most of the bale and not leave much. However, when bales are 50% TDN, the cattle tend to leave more stems, or litter, on the ground.

Because that litter can add organic matter to the soil, Njos places the lower-quality bales on poorer soils. Since Njos purchases most of his hay, he strives to buy hay based on energy content, and pay accordingly for higher- or lower-quality hay.

Gordon writes from Whitewood, S.D.

More management lessons

When John Lee Njos phased out cropland, he reseeded those lands to grass. Njos says his favorite species for their area include green needlegrass, western wheatgrass, slender wheatgrass and big bluestem. Because southwest North Dakota provides sage grouse habitat, the Njoses have been able to secure some cost-share funds for re-establishing grasslands.

Njos is also working to match cow size to the Badlands environment. Specifically, he’s selecting for thick, deep-bodied cattle with a smaller frame. “That body type seems to allow them to do better with winter grazing,” he explains.

About their high stock density, Njos says it has been one of his favorite management tactics they’ve implemented. “It speeds up the water cycle, mineral cycle and energy flow, because cattle leave more nutrients [manure and plant litter] behind, and our soil has benefited.” Additionally, on the family’s alfalfa stands — which include a mixture of grass — Njos says grazing at a high stock density has eliminated alfalfa weevil problems, which can be an issue in the area.

Given the remote, rugged range, Njos says, “Our biggest challenge is, and probably will continue to be, getting water to the cattle, especially in drought years. That’s what we have to work around. We’ve put in a lot of pipeline, and we also have an old truck that holds 4,000 gallons and a semitrailer for water storage.”

Kindra Gordon

Planned grazing keeps cattle moving

In the rugged Badlands of southwestern North Dakota, soils are fragile, grass species are limited and precipitation is sparse, averaging a little more than 10 inches a year. Near Rhame, N.D., John Lee and Ellen Njos bought their ranch in 1973, raising commercial Angus cattle and a family of five children. Early on, Njos recognized that managing their grass and soil resources would be paramount to their success — and survival. Of their first decade ranching, he says, “We were depleting our resources, and I was concerned about that.”

In 1986, Njos attended a grazing management workshop in Bismarck that featured Allan Savory promoting intensive rotational grazing. Njos returned home ready to make changes. “That’s where it started,” he says, and notes that Gene Goven and Ken Miller, two North Dakota ranchers who have also become grazing management evangelists, were in the class with him.

Njos recalls coming home and putting in electric fencing using wooden posts, because there were no insulators for steel posts at that time. As fencing equipment advanced to polywire and fiberglass posts, the Njoses continued to experiment with rotational grazing.

Today, their 4,600-acre operation has evolved from a combination of cattle and crops, to solely raising cattle. They focus on grazing their cow herd for as many months as possible, and have even stopped putting up hay, preferring to graze that land instead. Their daughter, Angela, and her husband, Luke, returned to the ranch a few years ago and are raising their seven children on the ranch.

A typical grazing season begins in May on introduced-grass pastures with crested wheatgrass, Kentucky bluegrass, or even cheatgrass. Their stocking rate averages about 230 head on 2 acres; cattle are moved three times a day. They will usually graze an introduced pasture once, but possibly twice, depending on the growing conditions that spring.

Njos explains that the high stock density results in increased manure nutrients on the pasture, along with hoof action to trample that manure and plant litter into the soil. He adds, “We mostly do this on our introduced grasses or former hayland that is an alfalfa-grass mixture.” As a result, Njos says they are seeing improvement to their soils and a regeneration of grass productivity, including more native species getting established in those pastures.

By mid- to late June, when the herd is moved to native grass pastures, the rotation slows down to eight or nine days before cattle are moved. “Seldom do we stay in a pasture 10 days,” Njos says.

It is usually two years before cattle will return to graze the same native pasture. “This allows native grasses to seed out, and we are seeing some species diversity coming in there, too,” he says.

Njos’ cow herd continues grazing into fall; steer calves are marketed as “natural” via an order buyer by mid-October. Heifer calves are kept for replacements and are usually left on the cows until December. Winter grazing continues in November and December; bale grazing begins in January.

Kindra Gordon

This article published in the January, 2015 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2015.

Beef Herd Management

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